This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in June 2016. This is the first of a four-part article on educated risks in the classroom. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here.
Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.
– Katherine Mansfield
The college I have worked with for the last two years was inspected recently and Ofsted judged us to be good with outstanding features. Two years ago, at the start of my tenure, we were judged requires improvement.
The journey from a grade 3 to a grade 2 provider, for me, started by consulting on, agreeing and articulating a shared vision for teaching, learning and assessment. That vision – far from being a corporate statement to be left alone on a dusty shelf – was our guiding star, a constant reminder of our moral purpose.
At the heart of our vision (to ensure all students are challenged, engaged and making progress every day) was a determination to make sure that all our students, irrespective of their backgrounds and starting points, were given the best possible start in life.
We wanted to strip away the sometimes distracting detail and focus on what fundamentally matters most in teaching – and if we cannot say that every student is challenged (i.e. doing something difficult), engaged (i.e. actively involved in the learning process and thinking for themselves), and making progress (i.e. learning something new each lesson and making progress over time) then we must surely have failed in our duty as educators.
The most important words in our vision statement were “all” and “every day”, because we believed it was not acceptable if some of our students were challenged but others were stuck or bored, if some were engaged but others were switched off or distracted, or if some were making progress but others were not.
In order to make that vision a reality, we wrote a three-year strategy, a set of aims and objectives – accompanied by a development plan – which, once again, became a living, breathing document discussed at every meeting and annotated daily. Our motto was: if it isn’t in the strategy, it isn’t important.
My leadership team was held to account by means of our strategy. The development plan, with its key performance indicators, was our primary tool for reporting our performance to the board. The strategy placed teacher professional development at its core, signalling our belief that our people were our most valued resource and their professional capital needed investing in and nurturing.
Much of our vision and strategy was concerned with achieving consistency and so, at the beginning of our journey to good, I had to wrestle with two apparently contradictory beliefs.
On the one hand, I believed that teaching was a profession (as opposed to a job) and that teachers were professionals (as opposed to workers). It followed, therefore, that teachers should be afforded autonomy in the classroom rather than be dictated to by senior leaders.
On the other hand, I believed that – in order to raise students’ aspirations and improve outcomes – sometimes, senior leaders needed to balance their defence of teacher autonomy with their need to achieve school-wide consistency.
Sometimes, leaders needed to insist upon every teacher following a set of common working practices so that they could be sure that every student was in receipt of the same high standards of teaching.
I had assumed that at the heart of this infernal internal debate about autonomy was a moral conundrum: could I trust every teacher every day to use their good judgement and expertise in order to do their best for every student? Or did I need to insist upon systems of collaboration and compliance that would ensure they did so?
Trust is, of course, vital in any organisation and the first step towards someone being trustworthy is to trust them. But when you are responsible for thousands of people’s education you are left with a tough choice: do you have complete trust in every one of your hundreds of staff or do you create systems of accountability?
The honest answer, I think, is yes and yes: yes, you have trust in all your staff, and yes, you create systems of accountability. I certainly came to that conclusion at the start of my journey – I decided that insisting upon every teacher following a set of common working practices – and thereby restricting teacher autonomy to a certain degree – had nothing at all to do with trust.
It was not a matter of trusting or not trusting my teachers – I had absolute trust in them; instead, it was, at least in part, about responding to our context. Let me explain…
The journey from good to outstanding is, I believe, about empowerment. It is about giving high-performing teachers – working in a school that’s established a culture of high expectations, aspirations, and motivation – the freedom and authority they need in order to be willing to take risks, to try new things in the classroom, and to “go their own way”.
In short, if you lead a school that is good to outstanding, you need to empower your staff with autonomy. You need, in the words of Roy Blatchford in The Restless School, to liberate your teachers to be mavericks in the best sense of the word, because the “accomplished, freed teacher, comfortable in her own knowledge of subject matter, who is able to master and manage high-quality digression, without fear of criticism of being off syllabus” leads to great learning.
However, the journey from requires improvement to good is about ensuring consistency and compliance. It is about systems and structures. It is about building, often from the foundations, the sort of culture I describe above: one of high expectations, aspirations and motivation. Only once a school has created this culture and is therefore good can it begin to empower its staff to take risks and to become more autonomous and independent.
In short, if you lead a school that is “inadequate” or requires improvement, you need to create systems of collaboration and compliance, you need to establish a set of common working practices. To quote Roy Blatchford again, the best schools “recognise the importance of high levels of quality control to secure good provision, evolving into higher levels of quality assurance (later). Thus a whole-school culture of excellence is created, within which teachers and students feel empowered to take measured risks”. In other words, you need to loosen to be outstanding but tighten up to be good. Of course, this “tightening up” necessarily means a loss of teacher autonomy (though not, as I say, a loss of trust). But does it also mean a loss of professionalism?
No, I don’t believe it does because, as Viviane Robinson – in Student-Centred Leadership – argues, although “feet of varying shapes should not be shoved into the same ill-fitting shoe”, in the sense of professional practice – teaching and teacher-learning – one size does fit all. In other words, although it is assumed that any loss of autonomy is undesirable because it somehow reduces the professionalism of teachers, this isn’t necessarily the case.
Although there is no question that increased coherence means reduced autonomy, it does not necessarily imply decreased professionalism. Doctors are seen as professionals because they have mastered complex sets of shared diagnostic and treatment practices. They exercise their judgement about how those procedures are to be applied in any individual case and are held accountable for those judgements.
Teachers need sufficient autonomy to exercise their professional judgement about how to use the framework and to contribute to evaluative discussions about its adequacy. But that autonomy should also be constrained by the need to ensure effective teaching practice – that is, practice under which all students achieve to a high level.
And this, for me, is the heart of the matter; moreover, this is how I came to reconcile my apparently contradictory beliefs. At the start of this two-year journey from requires improvement to good, I concluded that in order to improve the quality of teaching in my college I needed to restrict teacher autonomy in order to ensure consistency.
Now that we are good with outstanding features, we can focus on creating a culture of autonomy and risk-taking. Indeed, I have already begun this leg of the journey and made a promise to our teachers that our focus now will be on “pedagogy not paperwork” (ever one for a neat soundbite) and that we will introduce no new systems or structures, policies or procedures.
We will, instead, focus our efforts on supporting teacher experimentation in the form of, for example, peer observation, lesson study, and coaching and mentoring. We will also concentrate our energies on developing new ways of sharing and celebrating best practice including through the use of new and emerging technologies.
But I know that our focus on pedagogy not paperwork and my promise to promote risk-taking and greater levels of professional autonomy are not quite as simple as freeing our staff to “go their own way”, because although a school’s context is important, it is not the only consideration to be taken into account.
I believe that even when a school has reached good and is moving towards outstanding, as we are, its leaders must continue to curtail the extent to which teachers are allowed to work alone.
So, yes, we may loosen the restrictions on autonomy but only in the sense of allowing and encouraging greater levels of collective autonomy (teachers working together to improve their practice by taking risks), as opposed to individual autonomy (teachers working in a purely idiosyncratic way), because, even when a school is good or outstanding, standard professional practice provides the scaffolding that’s required for the exercise of truly professional rather than idiosyncratic judgement.
In part two of this exploration of risk-taking in education I will explore the notion of collective autonomy and examine ways in which teachers can work together to improve the quality of teaching in their schools.